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Senator pushing to expand free school lunch program

IRONTON — Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown is proposing legislation that would ease access to free and reduced school meal programs across Ohio and the country, an effort to fight the growing epidemic of child hunger.

More than 700,000 low-income school children in Ohio currently participate in free and reduced meal programs with nearly 737,000 free and reduced lunches served in Lawrence County alone between July 2007 and June 2008.

In addition, Brown also highlighted the more than 1,000 sites in Ohio that provide food to children during summer months under the Summer Food Service Program.

The program was established to provide school-aged children breakfast, lunch or a snack during the summer months at locations like schools, summer camps, churches and recreation centers.

Lawrence County has only two facilities in the entire county that offer a Summer Food Service Program and Brown’s announcement was welcome news to one of those.

Jamie Shields, principal at Chesapeake Elementary School, said her summer food program offers lunch in the month of June to around 100 students daily.

Shields added that during the school year, more than 1,400 students take part in the district’s free breakfast program but students must apply and qualify for the free or discounted lunch program.

“All we really want to do is get the kids what they need,” Shields said while confirming the possible stereotype backlash some students could be feeling in knowing they qualify but don’t sign up.

Asked if the prospects of Brown’s legislation would help the district’s program, Shields did not hesitate.

“We would be thrilled to no end.”

Besides Chesapeake Unions Schools, the only other Summer Food Service Program in Lawrence County is in the Dawson-Bryant School District. Green Local Schools in Franklin Furnace is also part of the program.

Despite the impressive local and statewide statistics, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 14 percent of eligible students are not enrolled in reduced school meal programs.

Most students or their parents that do not register cite reasons from the complicated application process to the “social stigma” some students feel comes with being enrolled in the low-income lunch program.

Brown’s proposed $2 billion legislation is geared to reduce paperwork and administration costs by having school districts use data from Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to directly enroll students in the meal programs.

By using state data and not having to rely on individual enrollments, Brown estimates an additional 150,000 children in Ohio could benefit from the program. The first-term senator announced his proposal during a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

Ohio ranks 15th worst in the nation with a food insecurity rate of 12.2 percent. Food insecurity measures the percentage of individuals who are experiencing difficulties in providing food on a regular basis for their family.

“A hungry child cannot learn and grow,” Brown said. “During these challenging economic times, more families are struggling to put food on the table. We have an obligation to connect children with nutrition programs and to ensure they don’t go hungry during the school-year or the summer months.”

Brown’s legislation would also improve state performance in enrolling eligible children in a school lunch program by setting a performance standard and providing incentives to high performance schools.

The Ohio Democrat would like to see 95 percent of students required to be directly certified for school lunch programs part of the program.

He also would like the program to achieve universal access for high poverty schools by allowing schools or districts serving a high proportion of low-income children to offer free lunches to all students.

Brown said that he hopes to pass the bill in the fall when Congress renews the 2004 Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act. That piece of legislation encompasses the national school lunch program and the summer food service program among others.